Move Over, Paulo Coelho. A New Guru Is In Town

Vallejo, 23, has fought for student debt to be eased as well as for the utopian goal of “free education for all.” Kevin Moloney / Aurora

Padre Marcelo Rossi emerges from the baggage claim at Rio de Janeiro’s downtown airport to a foyer of cellphone paparazzi. With a Teflon smile, he beelines through the lobby to a hired car. He’s overdue at a book launch in São Gonçalo, a working-class city where thousands of faithful have been massing since dawn.

Such is the life of the 44-year-old priest who has become Latin America’s leading evangelist. Famed for his rollicking masses where multitudes sway to pop religious songs, Rossi has been reborn as Brazil’s hottest author. His debut title, Ágape, an easy-reading self-help riff on the Gospel of St. John, has flown off shelves since it launched last August. Rossi’s publisher, Editora Globo, knew it had struck gold signing him—even an autographed napkin by the star preacher would be a winner—and boldly projected sales of a million copies by mid-2011. By late September, sales had tipped the 6 million mark, shattering all national records.

Rossi’s book—the title is Greek for “divine love”—sold 25 times more than the next bestselling book of 2010. Not even Brazil’s global blockbuster author Paulo Coelho has sold as many copies of a single title in such a short time span. “Ágape created a whole new standard for bestsellers in Brazil,” says Mauro Palermo, executive director of Editora Globo’s book division, who has escorted Rossi around the country on an ambitious book tour to 37 cities in eight months. In Belém, in the Amazon region, he sold 6,400 books in one evening. Nearly 24,000 mobbed his book signing in Brasília. The water supply ran dry the day he signed books at Rio’s book biennale.

It is no different in São Gonçalo, where two dozen security guards tend the crowds as they pour into a roped-off parking lot outside a mall. “I get butterflies in my stomach when I see this,” says Rossi, as his black Toyota Corolla edges past lines of autograph seekers coiled around the block. Many wait up to 13 hours or more for a chance to glimpse the holy man.

Rossi burst onto the scene in the late 1990s, when the Roman Catholic Church was bleeding souls in a war of attrition against creeping secularism and evangelical sects. The number of professed Catholics plunged from 83 percent of the population in 1991 to 73 percent by 2000. During the same period, evangelical Protestants doubled their flock, from 8 percent to 16 percent of the population. Faithlessness also spiked, with the number of Brazilians professing no religion at all doubling to 9 million by the mid-2000s. Catholicism needed a shot in the arm.

As it happened, a new strain of the faith, known as the Charismatic Catholic Renovation, was stirring in Latin America. Weary of sitting still through turgid masses, the carism‡ticos cranked up the liturgy a few notches. No one was better at it than Rossi: lanky and blue-eyed, with a degree in physical education, the 20-something preacher cut a striking figure in the suburban São Paulo diocese where he was assigned in 1994. Soon the pews began to overflow. To avoid a stampede, he invited worshipers to stay on for an after-mass workout, attracting even bigger crowds.

Over time, he added live bands, rock hymns, and choreographed step aerobics—“the Lord’s aerobics,” he called them, recording a selection of favorites that became the first of 12 gold and platinum CDs, selling 12 million copies. (His latest, Ágape Musical, a musical version of the book, has sold 430,000 copies since early September.) Open-air masses, radio broadcasts, and TV appearances followed. Two million Brazilians watched him in the film Mary, Mother of the Son of God.

When the neighborhood church was no longer big enough, Rossi began to preach in a converted warehouse, drawing tens of thousands. Now, with the coffers topped up with royalties from Ágape ($4.5 million to date), he plans to build the Marcelo Rossi Sanctuary, a megachurch in São Paulo designed by famed architect Ruy Ohtake that will seat 100,000.

Not since Padre Cicero, the folk priest of the poor northeast backlands, has Brazil seen such star power. But Cicero ministered to peasants. Rossi has made his ministry in Latin America’s biggest metropolis, cutting across lines of class and religion. “Seventy percent of the people who read my book are Catholics, but 20 percent are Protestant evangelicals, and 10 percent follow spirit cults,” he says.

The bishopric ought to be beaming over Rossi. But that hasn’t always been the case. Just mention Benedict’s XVI’s 2007 trip to Brazil and watch the normally serene Rossi fume. For Benedict’s São Paulo appearance, Rossi was relegated to a warm-up act at 5:40 a.m., hours before the pope was scheduled to appear. “I was boycotted, humiliated,” he says. Rossi never saw the pope and carried the slight for years. “It hurt me profoundly,” he says.

Vindication came last year when the Vatican honored him for his work as a modern-day evangelist. But his trials weren’t over. Days after learning he was to be garlanded in Rome, he stumbled while jogging on the treadmill and shattered several bones in his foot. “If I operated, I’d have to cancel my trip. If I didn’t,” he pauses for effect, “I was in God’s hands.” He took the gamble and, pumped up with painkillers, finally met the pope. But the whole experience—the church politics, the injury, the painful convalescence—took its toll and Rossi fell into a “deep sadness.” His only solace was the Bible, especially St. John’s Gospel, and a word processor. Six months later, with the help of a professional writer, Ágape was ready.

“I never asked anyone why any of this happened to me, but for what purpose,” says Rossi, as his driver evades the crowds. “Today you can see the result.” He scans his assembly of followers, which by nightfall will reach 20,000. It’s a scene to which the Vatican—and his publishers—can only say “Amen.”